July 2018 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Emily Brontë, the novelist and poet best known for her novel Wuthering Heights (1847). Born on 30 July 1818 in Thornton, near Bradford in West Yorkshire, Emily was the fifth of six children including the famous Charlotte and (Patrick) Branwell Brontë. Emily died of tuberculosis on 19 December 1848 in Haworth, West Yorkshire, aged 30. Wuthering Heights remains consistently among the top three best-selling of all classic novels in the English language
But how much do you know about Emily Brontë? Here, Claire O’Callaghan brings you 10 surprising facts about the writer’s life, death and writing…
Emily was good at art
Like her brother, Branwell, and sisters, Charlotte and Anne, Emily Brontë was a competent artist. She received some formal tuition from John Bradley, a local artist in Keighley, West Yorkshire, in the 1830s, but largely Emily was self-taught, learning to draw by copying images from manuals and popular prints of the day.
Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds (1797) – the book that Jane reads from when sat in a window seat at the beginning of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) – was a popular source of inspiration in the Brontë household. Emily, we know, copied a series of images from Bewick’s book, including two pencil drawings of moorland birds.
Emily was also confident enough to experiment in different mediums. Indeed, her 29 surviving illustrations include a series of pen-and-ink sketches; some paintings – particularly watercolours; a handful of pencil drawings; some engravings; and a geometry exercise. One of her finest pieces is an 1841 watercolour of her pet merlin [a bird of prey] named Nero, so named presumably because its naturally wild ways evoked those of the tyrannical Roman emperor.
The portrait shows off Emily’s skill for close observation and a delicate hand – the colour of the bird’s plumage is intricately rendered. Looking at the image, it’s hard to understand why Clement Shorter, one of Charlotte’s late 19th-century biographers, stated that Emily’s drawings are “technically full of errors”. I myself disagree and Nero’s portrait suggests otherwise.
Emily was an animal lover
Despite Elizabeth Gaskell’s sensational and mythic story about Emily beating her dog [recounted in Gaskell’s 1857 biography of Emily’s sister The Life of Charlotte Brontë], Emily Brontë was, in fact, a big animal lover. Indeed, the family’s pets – particularly Emily’s bullmastiff, Keeper, and Anne’s spaniel, Flossy – were regular muses for Emily’s art. As well as accompanying her for daily walks on the moors, Keeper, in particular, was often seen lying next to Emily on the carpet while she read. Apparently, Emily often had to adjust her own position to reciprocate his affection, manoeuvring herself to get her arm around his neck.
Despite Keeper’s size (which you can get a sense of from his extremely large collar, on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Keighley), Keeper appears to have thought of himself as a lapdog, because he worked hard to sit on his mistress’s lap, often pushing Charlotte aside just so he could be with Emily. Charlotte captured the affectionate relationship between Emily and her hound in her second novel, Shirley (1848): the titular character, Shirley, was inspired by Emily, while Shirley’s dog, Tartar, was based on Keeper:
“The tawny and lionlike bulk of Tartar is ever stretched beside her, his negro muzzle laid on his fore paws – straight, strong, and shapely as the limbs of an Alpine wolf. One hand of his mistress generally reposes on the loving serf’s rude head, because if she takes it away he groans and is discontented.”
As well as her love of dogs, Emily Brontë was known to find and rescue injured animals from her walks on the moors, including the aforementioned Nero, who she had recovered from an abandoned nest and brought home to the parsonage. Alongside her rescued animals, Emily also took pleasure in looking after the family’s cats (Tom and Tiger); a canary (called Dickie); and two geese, Adelaide and Victoria, named after the royal princesses of the time.
Emily was able to shoot
Emily’s father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, taught Emily to use a pistol in the 1840s. He discharged a weapon on a daily basis from a top floor window in the parsonage as a preventative measure against civil unrest by Luddites, a group which had rioted against technology replacing skilled craftsmen in the early 19th-century. When his eyesight began to fail, Patrick gave Emily the responsibility of discharging the weapon daily because, as the Haworth stationer John Greenwood put it in his diary, Patrick “had such unbounded confidence in his daughter Emily, knowing, as he did, her unparalleled intrepidity and firmness.”
Indeed, Patrick took great pride in developing his daughter’s skills: Emily would run to the bottom of the garden, put the target board in position and then return to her father who had primed and loaded the gun for her. “Now my girl,” he would say, “take time, be steady”. “Yes papa,” she replied, before firing the weapon with a firm hand. “Oh!”, her father exclaimed, “she is a brave and noble girl. She is my right-hand, nay the very apple of my eye!”
Emily was a good cook
It’s said that Emily Brontë made the best bread in Haworth – a skill she developed when Tabitha ‘Tabby’ Akyroyd, the housekeeper at the parsonage, slipped and broke her leg on the ice in Haworth’s main street, making it difficult for her to complete her domestic duties. Emily and her sisters resisted the suggestion that Tabby should leave her post and instead collectively took on Tabby’s responsibilities. As a result, Emily quickly mastered the art of bread-making.
With her sister Anne, Emily created a fictional, woman-centred world called Gondal
Although Emily is largely known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), the majority of her creative energy was put into the construction of Gondal – a sprawling imaginary island located in the Pacific Ocean that was led by women.
Emily and Anne wrote elaborate narrative poems that described Gondal’s dynastic family sagas and political battles. A character named Augusta Geraldine Almeida (known in the poems as A.G.A.) seems to have been Emily’s main protagonist, and she was a Byronic heroine; a passionate beauty who was utterly ruthless in personal and political affairs.
Sadly, no full account of the fantasy epic survives, but Emily’s published poems – those released in 1846 in Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (the siblings’ pseudonyms) – are based on Emily’s Gondal writings. In fact, Emily meticulously ‘de-Gondalised’ the poems, as one biographer termed it, for publication, removing all traces of the fantasy island and the female-led world so that they individually stand alone as poetic verse.
Emily was a proficient musician
Although we think of Emily Brontë as a great writer, she was also an accomplished pianist. The Brontës’ family friend Ellen Nussey, who was a regular visitor to their home in Haworth, said that Emily played the family piano “with precision and brilliancy”.
Emily’s music books reveal that she was able to play works by Beethoven, Mozart, Handel and Haydn, and her musical scores show how she annotated the pieces to learn the notes. It is likely, therefore, that Emily’s love of music is a reason for the appearance of the “fifteen strong” Gimmerton band in Wuthering Heights that, we’re told, included “a trumpet, a trombone, clarinets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers”. The character Nelly tells us: “They do the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas… and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them.”
Emily Brontë had terrible spelling
Very little of Emily’s original written materials survive, but those that do indicate that she wasn’t very good at spelling.
Emily briefly went to school when she was six, joining her elder sisters, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge – a school Charlotte later immortalised in fiction as the miserly Lowood School in Jane Eyre.
The admission register at Cowan Bridge doesn’t note any of the genius later attributed to the Wuthering Heights author. It simply reads: “Emily Brontë. Entered Nov. 25, 1824. Aged 5¾. Reads very prettily and Works a little. Left School June 1, 1825. Subsequent career, governess”. However, Emily was only at the school for a few months. Her departure was the result of a typhoid epidemic that ravaged the school, leading to the declining health of her sisters, who were sent home suffering from tuberculosis.
Maria returned to Haworth in February 1825 and spent three months convalescing, but she died soon after on 6 May. Then, three weeks later, on 31 May, Elizabeth returned home too, but her demise was even faster than Maria’s; she died on 15 June. Consequently, Patrick Brontë chose not to send his other daughters back to the school, so Emily – like Charlotte –was home schooled for the majority of her formative years.
Even though Emily’s spelling didn’t really improve with age, she was, nonetheless, always an enthusiastic learner, educating herself from a range of fictional and non-fictional sources at her disposal in the family home. She did so even when she was baking bread in the parsonage – she could often be seen with a book propped open and a notepad at her side.
Emily spent some time abroad in Belgium
In 1842, Emily Brontë travelled with her sister Charlotte to Brussels to enrol at the Pensionnat Héger, an ‘Educational Establishment for Young Ladies’. The sisters wanted to polish their education and improve their language skills. They were taught there by Monsieur Constantin Héger, the tutor with whom Charlotte became somewhat infatuated.
Héger and Emily didn’t get on well because she disliked his teaching methods (such as asking the sisters to compose essays and responses to various topics and titles of his choosing). After Emily died, though, Héger spoke fondly of Emily, claiming that he she “should have been a man – a great navigator” and that he had seen “the genius” in her writings. Héger preserved some of Emily’s work, a number of which exist in their translated form in scholarly studies on the siblings.
Emily had to pay to have Wuthering Heights published
The Brontë sisters’ first publication, Poems by Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell (1846), was not a commercial success. Not only did they have to pay £36 to the publisher Aylott and Jones for its publication, but the collection sold very few copies. In spite of this financial failing, the sisters were determined to forge successful literary careers in order to financially support themselves in the event of their father’s death. Buoyed by a handful of reviews that acknowledged the literary skill in their writings (reviews in which Emily’s poetry was regularly singled out for praise), the sisters pressed ahead with their first novels.
Wuthering Heights was published in December 1847 by Thomas Cautley Newby and appeared as a double volume alongside Anne’s Agnes Grey. But the novels were initially rejected by several publishers before Newby’s acceptance – and ultimately the sisters had to pay him £50 for the privilege.
Emily Brontë was writing a second book
This is certainly the impression given by a letter from Newby, which was found in Emily’s writing bureau long after she died. The letter, dated 15 February 1848, the year after Wuthering Heights was published, is addressed to ‘Ellis Bell’, Emily’s pseudonym. It reads:
I am much obliged by your kind note & shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel. I would not hurry its completion, for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends on your next work. If it be an improvement on your first novel you will have established yourself as a first-rate novelist, but if it fall short the Critics will be too apt to say that you have expended your talent in your first novel. I shall therefore, have pleasure in accepting it upon the understanding that its completion be at your own time.
My dear Sir
Sadly, these plans were not to be. The summer of 1848 was a difficult one in the Brontë household: Branwell died in the September from tuberculosis, having weakened physically over the summer due to his long-standing addiction to alcohol and, it’s said, opium. Emily became ill at her brother’s funeral. After a short illness, she died on 19 December – also from tuberculosis.
No evidence of a manuscript for a second novel has ever been found, but many have speculated that Charlotte may have destroyed it along with many of Emily’s other materials after her sister’s death.
Dr Claire O’Callaghan is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. Her book Emily Brontë Reappraised was published in June 2018 by Saraband.